Sailor’s snowbird dream takes flight


As you read this issue of Soundings, my wife, Liz, and I will be on passage north aboard Sonata, our 1981 36-foot Pearson cutter, experiencing yet another dimension of a dream I’d nurtured for decades: Living on a boat and dancing up- and down-latitude to avoid extreme summer heat and winter cold.

As you read this issue of Soundings, my wife, Liz, and I will be on passage north aboard Sonata, our 1981 36-foot Pearson cutter, experiencing yet another dimension of a dream I’d nurtured for decades: Living on a boat and dancing up- and down-latitude to avoid extreme summer heat and winter cold. It’s been about a year since we cast off our ties to the shore, and though we had no home to sell, the disconnect was nevertheless pronounced in its effect. Seeing just how much junk accumulates in a large apartment and choosing what to stuff into a relatively small self-storage bin made us both wonder what it would be like to live within the cramped confines of a fiberglass cocoon. Would this lifestyle really be right for us?

Launching a dream

The adventures began immediately. The sky darkened to the west as the Travelift rumbled toward the water’s edge in Portsmouth, R.I., the mechanical beep-beep of the machine’s warning device sounding loud in the still, humid mid-June air. Aloft, great expan-ses of purple-gray clouds seemed to boil. Thunder growled in the distance.

“They’d better hurry,” I said, looking nervously at Liz.

Vulnerable hanging in the slings, splashing the boat always inspires anxiety. This time the routine was far from the usual prelude to a season of cruising; it marked the beginning of something new and unknown. The approaching storm was somehow fitting.

Once Sonata was in the water, a yard boat took her in tow to the slip. The first chilly gusts whistled through the leaves of the trees around the yacht basin, caught Sonata abeam, and blew her fast toward the dock. It took me and three other guys to keep her from a hard landing. The rain came as we secured her and then dashed below.

Getting under way

We were bound for Southport Island, Maine, a place we knew well, having kept our previous boat, a Bristol 24, there for years while we lived aboard during the summers when school was out and Liz had two months to decompress before facing the classroom again. As a freelance writer, which, at times, is akin to being chronically unemployed, I could work or not work from any location, so it was possible for us to get a preview of the liveaboard lifestyle. Yet as we sailed up the coast to Maine after leaving Rhode Island, the feel of the journey was different: We knew no classes awaited Liz, since she’d retired. We had nowhere to go ashore. There was no turning back.

Settling in

Choosing a familiar locale to adjust to living aboard proved important. It made the transition easier. Riding to our mooring off the SheepscotRiver, enjoying the cool sea breezes and the brilliant sunsets, watching the seals and gulls, it all was so terribly romantic, just like the magazines promised. But it also became abundantly clear that the beauty and peace came with a price.

Sonata is a fine cruising boat, but we couldn’t afford such things as a generator and an electric reefer. At night, we read by the dim yellow light of two oil lamps, and we regularly restocked the supply of block ice in the icebox, which we began calling the glacier. Most every day we loaded my laptop and files into the dinghy, praying I didn’t drop the computer into the water, and drove to the library or a Wi-Fi coffee shop, where I’d research and write magazine stories. Since we weren’t off to the land of palms but would winter over in New Bern, N.C., we kept our car — a good move indeed.

Enjoying the view

Commuting by dinghy and chasing the often elusive Internet wasn’t the only distraction. The other major one for me was the gray hairs. There were quite a few cruisers around, all of whom were retired from well-paying jobs, and living on yachts that cost as much as a nice house. The other denizens of the marina were still working, and visited their boats on weekends or took off cruising, squeezing as much sea time as possible out of Maine’s short sailing season. They played; I worked.

At 44, I was a long way from any chance of retiring. Cash flow was important, so I wrote as much as possible. As it turned out, the months in Maine passed without us doing much sailing at all. We weren’t on vacation or even cruising in the seasonal sense. The boat was a tiny dwelling with a million-dollar waterfront view. “We’ll get our sailing when we head south,” I told Liz.

Voyaging south

At the end of September it was time to go. We had an estimated 1,000 boat miles to make before arriving in New Bern, a historic little city situated on the Trent River, right off the much larger Neuse River at the southern end of Pamlico Sound. While Liz brought the car south and visited friends, I, together with crew, sailed offshore in three legs to Cape May, N.J., waiting out two strong gales along the way and scooting south on the heels of brisk northwesterly winds after the storms passed.

Those offshore treks gave me the adventure I’d wanted, realizing parts of the dream I’d played out in my mind time and again over the years: spray flying, wind moaning in the rigging, frothing bioluminescence as the hull sliced through the waves under skies sprayed with diamond-like stars, the grandeur of the ocean’s sheer vastness. At no time ashore had I ever felt like this, and even when cruising for a season and seeing the same things, the experience on my passage south was different, somehow more profound.

Changes in latitudes

The ever-broadening waters of Chesapeake Bay, as Liz, who rejoined the boat in Cape May, and I continued south, imparted a real sense of changing latitude. The marshlands, winding creeks, crab boats, and the sweet lilt of the Southern accents we heard so often were the antithesis of the granite, pine and fog of Down East Maine. We sailed much of the distance from the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Canal, riding the north winds that held the chill of autumn.

On the Intracoastal Waterway, we began to see and meet other snowbirds, and we began to understand that the cruising community is a small world unto itself as we met the same crews at one place, then another. Almost all of them were headed to Florida or the Caribbean. “Why don’t you go farther south?” they’d ask when hearing we were wintering in New Bern. “We don’t like the heat,” I’d reply, but that was only part of the answer.

Navigating the ditch

As we motored down long and narrow land-cuts hemmed in on either side by dense stands of loblolly pine — pencil-straight trunks topped with tufts of foliage, broccoli trees, Liz called them — we couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go another 1,000 miles in such constricted waters. They call the ICW the “ditch” for good reason. We heard horror stories about the shoals of Georgia, of the channels that twisted and turned through remote marshland that extended to the horizon. Many of the cruising boats, including ours, were too deep to stay inside all the way on parts of the waterway, necessitating offshore passages and a close eye on the weather.

There was another reason we didn’t want to go farther south. Our objective for the first year of living aboard was simply to see if we liked it, and we chose not to go too far afield in case we didn’t. Baby steps were fine with us; the palms weren’t going anywhere if we decided to sail down to see them.

A new homeport

It took just over one month to make it from Southport to New Bern, and by the time we arrived in late October it was time for rest and to acquaint ourselves with our winter surroundings. The trees were just beginning to show the colors of fall and the air was warm. As we walked the streets of the city, admiring the brick buildings while window-shopping, the sight of people walking around in shorts seemed odd. “I can’t believe it’s November,” I’d say to Liz, half expecting it to snow. In the Northeast, it snowed on Thanksgiving Day; in New Bern, it was 60 degrees.

Gradually, we developed a routine and a rather decadent one at that: staying up too close to midnight watching cable TV at our slip behind the Sheraton Hotel; waking up late in the morning, sometimes having breakfast at noon; and, after that, out came the laptop which I could mercifully plug into an AC outlet. Wi-Fi was conveniently close. Every time there was a big bash at the Sheraton, I’d fill a dock cart with immense shards of ice from the ice sculptures left near the dumpster, replenishing “the glacier” in fine style. I found myself slowing down as the days and weeks passed, as if I’d fallen under a strange sort of spell that had switched me from a Type A personality to a Type B. Whether this was a good thing or not, I wasn’t sure.

A touch of winter

The weather finally did turn cold, dropping into the mid-20s at night upon occasion. We ran two electric heaters and fired up an alcohol heater. Condensation dripped inside some of the lockers, and I’d swab the main hatch before setting up the computer to avoid a short if water rained on the keyboard. In the morning, frost covered the dock and it burned off only in the sun, leaving an exact shape of the boat’s silhouette in the areas of shade. The bottomsiders were frozen as stiff as boards. The cold spells gave a whole new meaning to “cabin fever” as we huddled inside, wondering if we’d made a mistake in wintering so far from Florida.

Every week it seemed another gale or two would blow through, sometimes with winds of more than 50 knots. The wind howling through the rigging, the halyards slapping no matter how tightly I tied them off to the shrouds, the occasional violent jerk of the boat against the dock lines in the fiercest gusts, it all became part of a life lived in close communion with the elements. And when the storms passed and the temperatures warmed to a mild 70 degrees in January, all the discontent faded, as I sat in the cockpit watching the sun set over the Trent River, our resident ducks splashing and quacking nearby.

Snowbird migration

As spring arrived, the cruisers stirred. Cans of varnish and Cetol were brought out. Wax and buffers. Oil and fuel filters. All the signs of the coming migration appeared around the docks, and we joined in as well, working on the boat in preparation for the voyage north to Maine. It was yet another reminder of how linked the snowbird is to the weather, how it dictates the rhythm of life. Living ashore one hardly notices the clouds, the moon, the stars, but on a boat these are the things that matter because there is time to stop for a look.

“So,” I said to Liz not long ago, “do you want to give it another year?”

She smiled at me. There was no need for her to answer.